A Brief and Opinionated History of American Craft Chocolate

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purple cacao beans


A whole cob of them actually, in the hollow of a plump, grooved pod that droops straight from the trunk of a trop- ical tree. I might’ve seen a picture of a cacao tree when I was young, in an encyclopedia or a textbook, but nothing was further from my mind when I was ten years old and digging into a pan of brownies or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup sundae.

We keep a few cacao trees in our factory on Valencia Street in San Francisco to help us tell a story. They’re spindly, urban saplings, far from home, and at first their waxy leaves seem a little out of place against the molten chocolate and clank of beans on metal. But I hope that anyone who sits down at our counter to watch the chocolate makers behind the glass will see those trees while they throw a brownie down the hatch and feel the connection. For anyone who grew up like I did, with crinkly-wrappered chocolate treats far removed from trees and farms, it’s a weird connection to make. But that’s why we’re here.

Europe and North America consume most of the world’s chocolate, thousands of miles from Indonesia, Ecuador, Ghana, and all of the other equatorial countries that grow the world’s cacao. ose of us who do all that eating—the only sport I’ve ever truly excelled at—don’t get to see the cocoa pods clipped from tree trunks during harvest, or smell the pungent vinegary fumes seeping from wooden boxes of pulpy, fermenting beans. We don’t see the decks, screens, or concrete lots where those beans dry, or the shipping containers loaded with jute bags. We also don’t see what happens inside the walls of the big, industrial factories where most of those beans become chocolate. Instead, it seems that chocolate just magically and immaculately appears in a wrapper on a grocery store shelf, with no sign of a bitter purple seed or the place where it was grown.

We’ve known and loved a lot of the chocolate on those shelves. It’s constant and reliable. For decades, grocery store milk chocolate bars and semisweet chocolate chips have tasted more or less the same. We have our choice of shades—milk, white, dark—and sometimes inclusions like sea salt, almonds, and caramel, but the baseline flavor beneath them stays static and unchanging: it’s the taste of chocolate as we’ve always known it. What we haven’t known, for most of our chocolate-eating lives, is that chocolate is not just one flavor.

The genetics of cocoa beans are wildly variable, even within a single pod. Their flavor changes from season to season, and industrial chocolate makers deal with thousands of tons of these seeds at a time. How, then, do those chocolate chips always taste the same, and why does one 35% milk chocolate bar taste so much like another? How could anyone possibly wrangle consistency like that from such a natural grab bag? is, in short, is the miracle and the tragedy of the Industrial Revolution.

But, let’s start this story before the Industrial Revolution, like four thousand years before, when Mesoamericans were growing cacao all across the Amazon basin. In the course of their long, domesticated life, cocoa beans have been many things; in ancient Mesoamerica, they were a ritual offering, a currency, a beverage, and a food flavoring. And interestingly but maybe not surprisingly, Mesoamericans treated varieties of cacao differently, depending on their ripeness and flavor, according to the records and recipes recorded by Maya scribes.

In hindsight it’s a little obvious that like any other agricultural product—say potatoes, grapes, or apples—cacao would have varieties that taste different from one another depending on the season, where they were grown, genetics, and climate. The fact that this variation was lost to those of us in Europe and North America is industrialization’s triumph.

On our four-thousand-year timeline, that loss is recent. When the Spanish conquistadors brought cacao home from the Amazon basin, carrying indigenous traditions and recipes for drinking chocolate with them, they recognized the natural variety, too. Eventually they adapted those indigenous recipes for the European palate—more milk, cardamom, and cloves, less chile and achiote, but the beans were still coarsely ground and drunk just as they were by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. (You’ll find more of this history unpacked in a paper by Carla Martin, PhD, and Kathryn Sampeck, PhD, “ The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.”)

Then, the nineteenth century brought coal, the steam engine, and technology that could smash cacao into an incredibly smooth paste for the first time, and it could be done on a large enough scale to make it cheap and accessible to more people. (The darker side to this story is that it depended on a growing population of coerced laborers—notably, the indigenous labor of the encomienda system, enslaved Africans, and familial labor in African and Southeast Asia.)

This is when cacao’s spectrum of flavor started to dwindle. Factories scaled up production and, looking for consistency, blended different varieties of beans and roasted them heavily enough to wash out their character. Sameness and low cost won out over flavor and nuance, and within a generation or two, chocolate became little more than sweet brown candy with a monotone flavor. So much potential and flavor was gone, and, with it, the story that chocolate is actually from somewhere—somewhere specific.

But about twenty years ago, the wheels of a new chocolate movement started to turn slowly. Around this time in the United States, John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg entered the scene. Steinberg was a physician who’d fallen in love with European chocolate, and Scharffenberger was a winemaker who was probably intrigued by terroir, seasonality, and complex flavors. They went on to build a chocolate factory in Berkeley, California, and, as clichéd as this sounds to say, it changed everything.

The Scharffen Berger factory opened its doors to the public. I took a tour of that factory when I was still in my previous tech-industry career, and it was the first time I’d seen chocolate being made from scratch. at factory was the first place that many people had ever seen chocolate being made, period. The equipment was old-school industrial: large, steely, and mint green. Wide granite rollers crushed nibs into cocoa liquor; pumps pushed molten chocolate into a basin for tempering. Here was the process, right in front of my eyes. e chocolate in my life—and there had been a lot of it—never tasted like anything but, well, chocolate. These Scharffen Berger bars tasted like chocolate, too, but they also tasted like bright raspberries and roasted nuts, creamy caramel, and coffee—all just from the cocoa itself. I watched and tasted, and realized that something different was happening here. And I wanted to be a part of it, even if that meant just eating all the chocolate I could get my hands on.

In a big way, Scharffen Berger reclaimed flavor. It jogged our cultural memory with a simple reminder that chocolate was more than a single, classic, brownie-like note. Chocolate could—and should—have complexity, nuance, tone, and flavor.

By 2005, Hershey absorbed Scharffen Berger, and soon thereafter closed the factory in Berkeley, moving production to Illinois. Their chocolate seemed to change, but the seed of a new movement had been planted, and the stage was set for a new kind of chocolate. A handful of chocolate makers who had been quietly experimenting with the same traditional methods rose into the void that Scharffen Berger left, and in the following years, dozens more piled into the fold. Many of them didn’t have the industrial equipment that Scharffen Berger had, but they were after the same thing: to capture the potential of the cocoa bean and the flavor that industrialization had forgotten. They wanted to make chocolate that tasted like something. They scraped together chocolate factories in their garages with duct tape and welding torches, and refitted household vacuums and PVC pipes. They were experimentalists with little precedent to rely on, lighting up a new chocolate frontier.

The first few who took up the torch and were making and selling chocolate by 2007 included Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate, Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate, Art Pollard of Amano Artisan Chocolate, as well as Theo Chocolate and Taza Chocolate. A few years later, there were maybe only a dozen or so other craft chocolate makers like them, but by 2016, over 150 had risen across the United States. Their processes are diverse, but they’re all bound together by a common respect for the raw ingredient and the people who grow it.

Back then, starting up wasn’t easy. Even as Scharffen Berger intrigued and inspired a new generation of chocolate aficionados and would-be makers, making chocolate on a small scale in those days was hard, nearly impossible. Cocoa beans rarely came in shipments smaller than 2,000 pounds, and the only equipment for making chocolate was designed to process at least that much.

Luckily, a resourceful man named John Nanci had spent years piecing together a way to do things on a small scale. He’d been a coffee nerd who roasted beans at home, inspired by Sweet Maria’s—a beloved Oakland warehouse and online resource for hobby coffee roasters and pros—and eventually broke digital ground with Chocolate Alchemy, the website that launched a thousand chocolate makers. He worked to source good beans and sell them to aspiring makers in small quantities, retrofit equipment, and work with manufacturers to adapt bean crackers and grinders for chocolate. He created an essential online forum where home chocolate makers could ask Alchemist John just about anything and discuss trade tips, tricks, and quandaries with each other, too. In short, he made it possible to make chocolate at home, and the great majority of chocolate makers who started up in the last dozen years got their start thanks to him. And with this, the fledgling New American Chocolate movement kicked into gear.

cacao beans

As more and more people got serious about it, some started traveling to where cocoa beans are grown (which we usually just call “origin”), met cacao producers, and learned to analyze chocolate like wine (it can, after all, have more flavor complexity than wine or coffee). Some of us tore through books, like The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla, a culinary historian and well-respected voice in the industry who pulled chocolate makers closer to the beans they were looking for and the places where they grew. Many of us consulted with Steve DeVries, a chocolate scholar and early mentor who counseled us on what machines to use or whose beans to buy. He’s still the sage many of us seek out today, hoping to plumb his bottomless knowledge of old machines. And then there was Chloé Doutre-Roussel, author of The Chocolate Connoisseur and another guiding force in the community who connected (or brought) many of us to beans and producers at origin for the first time, and whose exquisite palate helped us understand the depth and nuance that chocolate could have. Some of us went to Europe, where family-run chocolate makers had survived industrialization, and learned techniques for fine-tuning the flavor and texture of chocolate. And of course, many plied Chocolate Alchemy and taught themselves. Other essential resources popped up, like the Chocolate Life—a forum founded by chocophile Clay Gordon—where chocolate makers could connect and swap tips, or Pam Williams’s Ecole Chocolat, an online chocolate school where many curious makers have learned the ropes. So many of these key gures helped to shape the beginning of the craft chocolate movement, and without their kindness, generosity, and openness, many of us would probably still be kicking our homemade winnowers, wondering where all the good beans are.

The chocolate makers who got going around this time were using different methods and ingredients, but they were collectively fascinated by one thing: the natural flavor of a cocoa bean. Even now, it’s hard to define what “craft chocolate” is. Some, like us at Dandelion, are minimalists and use only two ingredients in our bars: cocoa beans and sugar. Others add all sorts of things—coconut milk powder, hazel- nuts, cumin seeds, and even bread crusts. Some of us roast heavily, others less so, and a few of us don’t even roast our beans at all. But craft chocolate isn’t about process or aesthetics or flavor preferences as much as it is about celebrating the inherent flavors and variation of cocoa beans, and honoring their origins. There are plenty of ways to make that bean into chocolate, and all of them are probably being done by someone, but we’re all interested in what the bean naturally has to offer. Generally speaking, we seek out high-quality beans and producers or brokers who share our values, whom we can trust, and who aren’t interested in exploiting the land or the people who cultivate it. What that means in practice varies from chocolate maker to chocolate maker, but at its core, our movement is devoted to a respect for the bean, and for all of the people and places that bring it into being.

making chocolate cover

Reprinted from MAKING CHOCOLATE: From Bean to Bar to S’more by Todd Masonis, Greg D’Alesandre, Lisa Vega, and Molly Gore. Copyright © 2017 by Dandelion Chocolate, Inc. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Photographs © 2017 Eric Wolfinger